Mary Barra: CEO steered GM past woes to bright future

Pioneer led automaker through ignition switch recall to sustained growth and future of self-driving cars

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra has shown poise during daunting times at the company. Resilience and determination.

Honesty and leadership.

Soon after Barra took over the largest U.S. automaker in January 2014, GM faced a crisis over defective ignition switches ultimately tied to 124 deaths and hundreds of injuries. The costly scandal was a defining period early in her tenure as the first woman to lead a carmaker: She testified four times before Congress, fired managers and delivered tough messages to employees.

“We made sure that we lived our values ... and then making sure we did everything with high integrity and with excellence,” Barra said. “... It showed the organization we were going to live our values even when it was hard.”

Barra, an engineer who began her 36-year career with GM as an intern at 18, is just the fourth Michigan native to lead GM. Under her watch, the company’s net income grew from $3.8 billion in 2013 to a record $9.7 billion last year. It is on pace for another record-setter in 2016.

Barra, who took over as GM chairman in January, isn’t just improving finances. Her leadership is breaking the corporation’s insular and bureaucratic culture.

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Former GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson praised Barra for navigating GM through a trying time and for changing corporate culture. “Mary, she’s got a core decency that is remarkable. She’s honest, she’s got good sensibility about her and she’s generous, but she can be tough in making decisions.”

GM will be first to bring to market an electric car under $30,000 that gets more than 200 miles per charge. The Chevrolet Bolt EV will be in showrooms by year’s end.

When she ran product development, Barra pushed to skip a 100-mile-range electric car in favor of the 200-mile moonshot under the same deadline.

As the auto industry transforms, Barra and key lieutenants are spending more time on personal mobility, an area that GM aims to lead. She devotes up to 40 percent of her time in this growing space.

In 2016 alone, GM bought software company Cruise Automation to quicken its deployment of self-driving car technology; it launched car-sharing company Maven; and it invested $500 million into ride-hailing company Lyft Inc. GM and Lyft are developing a fleet of self-driving Bolts.

“It’s my job to be looking out over the horizon and making sure we have the right plans in place, so we have strong performance, not only today and next year,” Barra said, “but in the next five, 10, 15 years and beyond.”

Melissa Burden

Mary Barra

Age: 54

Occupation: Chairman and CEO, General Motors Co.

Education: Bachelor’s degree from General Motors Institute (now Kettering University); Masters of Business Administration, Stanford University

Family: Husband, Tony Barra; two children, a son and daughter

Why honored: Path-breaking CEO effectively lead General Motors through challenge, prosperity and the road to mobility

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